Panasonic Avionics, Gogo and Global Eagle Entertainment “are pushing” the inflight connectivity market with their Ku-band products, and have an enviable lead over the competition due in part to the fact that global Ka is not yet available at a time when airlines are chomping at the bit for connectivity, suggests a top exec at satellite operator Intelsat, which provides Ku capacity to these providers, and is gearing up to launch its ‘Epic’ high-throughput satellites (HTS).
In the debate over whether Ku or Inmarsat’s forthcoming Global Xpress Ka service is best, “I think there are probably a couple of angles that we see,” says Intelsat director of mobility services James Collett. “One is the fact that Ku systems today are quite mature in the market. I mean that in a positive sense. The service providers have experience deploying them, using them, and you know I think that counts for a lot in this market, and what we also see is fabulous momentum around Ku-band solutions. If you look in the next five years, people are saying revenues will triple, and installations will double. Then, from our perspective, Ku is fantastically positioned because it is the service that has the momentum in the market.
“So I think from a Global Xpress perspective, their challenge will really be ramping up and getting that momentum against a technology that is moving very, very fast. And, as you know, airlines are making line decisions, and I think Ku is positioned as the leader there today and the leader with really solid momentum.”
Though Inmarsat has successfully launched one of three satellites needed to support global Ka, its launch of F2 and F3 is delayed due to well-reported problems with the Proton launcher. The company is, however, still gunning for launch of these satellites early this year, and expects to offer GX inflight connectivity before the end of 2015, though Qatar Airways – a launch customer – says it doesn’t expect to be able to offer GX-power Internet until 2016.
This delay to the GX program is giving here-and-now Ku offerings a leg up, according to Collett. “My own experience of bringing aeronautical services to market while I was at Inmarsat is things always pan out a lot more slowly than you ever hope them to. That doesn’t mean you don’t get to where you want to get to in the end, but trying to force the case with aero connectivity is very, very hard, and I think it’s going to be tough being second to market or late to market, against an industry that like I say has just got fabulous momentum right now,” he says.
“And then I think on top of that from a performance standpoint, I think we’re very comfortable with how solutions would function with something like Epic versus GX. Our strategy could put the capacity and bandwidth in the key locations – the key air corridors – and allows us to deploy the most useful bandwidth to the end user. I think we feel pretty comfortable in that regard.”
He says the Epic program remains on track. “Yes, the program is all good. We’re looking to open up service the first of the New Year 2016; these things can never be more precise than that. That’s a good date target. The launch of the satellites will be third quarter 2015. Then in New Year 2016, six months after that, it will be fully in service.”
Intelsat is using the Arianspace Ariane launch vehicle for its initial Epic satellite launches. Collett says the fact that Ariane among all operators right now is “the most scheduled of the lot”, gives the firm “comfort”. However, he adds, “I think in this industry no one really looks at anyone else’s [launch plans with bravado] because we’re all in the same position. Not so long ago, we suffered a launch failure. I think everyone wants access to space, have available [slots] and at a cheap price. I think, amongst the operators, we share a common interest there.”
The first Epic satellite, Intelsat 29e, will cover all of Latin America, but from an aero perspective, “where we sold on that particular payload is on the North Atlantic. Panasonic Avionics is obviously the anchor for that, and their commitment as we talked about previously is something like 1 Gbps of capacity across the North Atlantic.”
Though both Gogo and Global Eagle currently use Intelsat’s broad beam Ku network “pretty extensively”, says Collett, they haven’t yet committed to capacity on Epic. “As you know well, those guys haven’t made any specific commitments for HTS Ku band; obviously Gogo have their own play with Global Xpress in terms of high throughput offerings. I think, and probably as we talk through our plans, you’ll get a sense of why we think we should have something attractive for them. We have announced seven Epic satellites so far. Our strategy around the Epic satellites and HTS component of our network is a little different to other operators in terms of globality. We already have a global Ku-band network today, which is what we call our legacy beams, the wide beams, and so really through a combination of both the wide beams and the Epic high throughput beams, we feel the service providers can get the optimum combination. In short we don’t see the need to put Epic everywhere; there is no sense putting HTS capacity where there is no planes. It’s for all things moving.”
The Intelsat executive believes Gogo’s 2Ku antenna is “a great example” of innovation in the Ku space, and “something which brings out the best in what Epic can offer. I say that from a couple of perspectives. In terms of improved performance of the space segment with Epic, the 2Ku antenna really sings. But also 2Ku is an innovation on the part of Gogo and ThinKom; they go together and are optimized around the design. The fact that our system is pretty open in terms of the way people can use it, means that they could take that novel technology and they could work it into our kind of network. With other networks that are a bit more closed than ours, you wouldn’t be able to bring along your own antenna and set up your own service parameters. So we see that as one of the big attractions of the network we’re putting up – the flexibility we can offer. Panasonic has an alternative new antenna, the phased array Ku announced at the APEX expo; that’s another angle on using these open networks in a different sort of way.”
Should Global Eagle and Gogo lock into an agreement for Epic Ku capacity in the near-term? “We’re going to effectively be bringing capacity into the market over the coming years, so there is no pressing event on the part of our customers. Obviously those customers are looking for better economics themselves, and HTS is a great way of improving the economics, but there is no specific compelling event that they have to come to us by X date in order to secure capacity. We’re going to be throwing capacity into the market with those seven satellites over a run through 2019.”
Intelsat competes with Global Eagle’s partner SES “in all domains, not just mobility and not just the aero part of the business”, notes Collett. “And it’s clear that they’re looking to build out a similar capability to the line we’ve been taking over the last few years. I think [SES’s plan] is an endorsement of open Ku band mobility networks for sure. “
So what should we expect out of Intelsat in the coming months? “We probably have announcements that relate to additional Epic satellites and those sorts of things, but nothing specific particular to your world, in aero Mary. That’s not because people aren’t out doing stuff with our network, but as you know, we tend to work closely with our direct customers, the service providers. We sit very much in the background, give them the best and most capable space segment, and the sexy bit is really handled by the service providers, they tend to carry the news and we tend to carry the boring news.”
Is there a continued story to tell about the cost per bit of Ku coming down with HTS?
“Absolutely, the cost comes down, but it’s not that these guys will be spending any less money because the amount of money that’s on the table is significantly increasing. I saw some recent research, talking about a threefold increase in revenues for the next five years, but the amount of bandwidth that the service providers are getting is significantly increasing, and that’s the beauty of HTS, which is all about us getting more bits out of each Hertz of spectrum we’ve got.”